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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Michael Block’s incredible PGA Championship adventure

Michael Block, a club pro, rejoices after making the cut on Friday at the Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y..  (New York Times)
By Bill Pennington New York Times

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – On Saturday evening, Michael Block, the 46-year-old Everyman golf pro from a public course in California, learned that he would continue his enchanting run at this year’s PGA Championship by playing the final round with Rory McIlroy, a four-time major champion. Block rolled his eyes at the news and spun around.

“Are you serious?” he asked.

He began to backpedal, as if reeling.

Eventually, he walked away, smiling but muttering: “Oh, boy.”

Block added: “That should be fun.”

And, oh, boy, was it ever.

In retrospect, perhaps McIlroy, 34, one of his generation’s greatest golfers, should have been the one grinning and eagerly awaiting the chance to play with Block, who finished the tournament tied for 15th but was treated like a visiting rock star throughout the weekend. And he lived up to the billing.

Block proved what’s possible in a game like golf, where the competition is more about the player against the course than it is golfer against golfer.

For this one tournament, Block, who had never even made the cut at a major championship, was able to keep up with the best in the game for 72 tense, demanding holes. He proved what’s possible, which may be the central reason people watch sports. And he won $288,333.33.

At the end of their pairing Sunday, McIlroy grabbed Block for a long bear hug on the final green. They may be 12 years apart in age and separated by hundreds of millions of dollars in golf earnings, but it was not evident in their heartfelt embrace.

In more than four hours of golf Sunday afternoon, it was just one of the highlights of their pairing – and there were many.

It was good golf, and more important, it was good for golf.

But no part will probably be more memorable than Block’s shot at the 151-yard, par-3 15th hole Sunday.

First, by way of background, the PGA Championship is the rare major tournament that reserves 20 spots in the field for members of the PGA of America, the organization that conducts the tournament and represents the 28,000 certified club pros in the United States.

Block, whose full-time job is to teach golf lessons and serve the recreational players at the Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo, southeast of Los Angeles, qualified for one of the 20 spots. It was a shock when he was even par through two rounds and in a tie for 10th, which made him only the second club pro to be in the Top 10 after two rounds in the tournament in the past 40 years.

It turns out that Block, who spent his time at this year’s PGA Championship signing virtually every autograph request from fans and entertaining reporters with winsome, self-deprecating answers to countless questions, was just getting started.

He shot a third par 70 on Saturday to stay relatively close to the top of the leader board.

Just before 2 p.m. Sunday at Oak Hill Country Club, a Block party erupted alongside the first tee. It was entirely unlike any other celebration at the event since fans began lining the holes of the nearly century-old course for practice rounds early last week.

A packed grandstand and a crowd 15 people deep that enveloped the arena-like first tee box erupted in rambunctious, clamorous cheering as Block appeared. The greeting for McIlroy was muted by comparison.

Chants of “Let’s go, Block” followed him as he walked up the first fairway, where, apparently free of any jitters, he rifled his opening shot.

Block bogeyed the opening hole, but he seemed unbothered by it, chatting amiably with McIlroy for two or three minutes as the two sauntered up the fairway. As Block reached the green, a fan shouted: “You’re one of us, Michael; we’re with you!”

When he made the second of six steadying pars, Block walked through a narrow corridor of fans. One yelled: “Working man coming through!”

Block continued to play with composure, even as some of the crowd’s enthusiasm had begun to wane. But at the 15th hole, Block again showed his sense of drama by knocking his tee shot into the hole on the fly.

The ovation for Block’s hole-in-one could be heard roughly 600 yards away near the clubhouse.

By the 18th hole, Block had hooked his second shot well left of the green and nearly 100 feet from the flagstick. His recovery was fitting: a pitch to 7 feet. His par putt slowly crept to the edge of the hole, paused and then fell out of view.

Making par on the closing hole also ensured that Block will be invited to the 2024 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky.

Interviewed minutes later, Block said: “I’m living a dream. It’s not going to get any better than this.”

Dedicating his performance to the club pros nationwide, he added, with tears in his eyes: “This is for you.”